Big questions: are Alexander Technique lessons expensive? Why not?

Are Alexander Technique lessons expensive?

I noticed a conversation on Twitter recently where two friends were discussing Alexander Technique lessons. One had just been for a lesson and enjoyed it, but was not likely to go back. They both agreed that it was ‘too expensive’.

This got me thinking: are Alexander Technique lessons expensive, and if so, why? And are they really ‘too expensive’? I’ve got three reasons why lessons cost money, and I’ve got a challenge to your thinking. Are you ready?! Read on…

Alexander Technique teachers are professionals

Good Alexander Technique teachers are professionals who have worked very hard to be qualified, and who continue to work hard to improve their skills.

I trained for four years part time. Others from different training schools train for three years part time, but under a different scheduling structure. That’s a lot of time. I learned FM Alexander’s books inside out. I gained a good grounding in basic anatomy and psychology. I learned hands-on techniques and many other vital teaching skills. I had to pass a slew of exams, including a practical exam, and log a large number of training lessons.

I hold public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance. I am the member of a professional teachers’ association, and I have registered under the voluntary regulator the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), because this ensures that my students know that I keep to high publicly-available standards. I am also a member of a union (Equity) and am a registered practitioner with the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM). I am required by both my professional association and CNHC (voluntary regulator) to do Continuing Professional Development every year.

Most teachers charge much the same rate per hour as a music teacher. I admit to charging a little more, but I have a fair few years of teaching experience behind me, as well as professional theatre training and music training. When it comes to working with performers or dealing with performance nerves, I really know what I’m talking about.

Most wouldn’t think twice about paying the same to a chiropractor, a massage therapist or an osteopath. When FM Alexander moved to England from Australia in 1904, he charged the same as a Harley Street professional, because he wanted his clients to take his lessons seriously. Some people pay significantly more on a regular basis to have their hair cut or their nails done! When you consider the training and expertise that you recruit when you come to a teacher, Alexander Technique lessons start to look like pretty good value for money.

We are in the business of improvement.

We’re not in the business of making people feel good. We also aren’t concerned with dealing with the structural after-effects of injury or trauma. I can’t necessarily speak for others, but as an AT teacher I help people to learn how to use themselves more effectively. I help them be more efficient so that their minds and bodies are better integrated, their movement easier, and their wellbeing greater. In short, I help people stop pulling themselves around in all the little ways that don’t cause any pain or harm in themselves, but when added together and done consistently over time can lead to a whole bunch of trouble.

I just don’t know of any other discipline that can help you learn to use your body more efficiently no matter what situation you find yourself in. It might be tempting to spend the money on a new pair of high heels; it’s a professional like me who can help you to walk in heels so that you look stunningly elegant.

We want you to be independent.

And I do this in a series of lessons. If you have clear goals and apply yourself between lessons, you can learn quickly and the number of lessons you need will likely be few. It’s part of my job to get you to be able to reason your own way through any situation you find yourself in, so that you can succeed with style and panache. Some of my students come, learn what they need, and then go away and apply it. Others come more regularly, or over a longer period, because they find value in continued self improvement. As with any other service, you take what you need.

My challenge to you.

In short, I’m a professional, trained and under (voluntary) regulation. I work hard to help my students prevent the poor physical use that leads to strain injuries and other related nastiness. I help them succeed and feel free to be more creative, whether on a stage or at their office desk. And I help them feel more in control of themselves and their lives. Some of my students have 1:1 Alexander Technique lessons; some come to groups; some learn via Skype. All of them improve and grow.

But only you can decide if you value your wellbeing, your daily activities, and your beloved pastimes enough to bear the expense.

It’s up to you.

What I learned about auditions and competitions by not making the cut!

Preparation for auditions and competitions is all-importantLast week my colleague and I travelled to Amsterdam to compete in an international recorder competition. We worked really hard, but I’m sad to say we didn’t get past the first round. All is not lost, though, because the experience helped me understand the pressures that students of mine feel when they have to do competitions and auditions.[1] Here’s what I learned from the experience, with some pointers about how to do it with less stress.

What did I learn?

Not making the cut sucks. It just does. If it happens to you, make sure that you plan something nice for yourself after the bad news. Take care of yourself.

But apart from that…

I was reminded of just how many variables in the auditions or competition process that you can’t control.

  • You don’t know who else is going to show up
  • You don’t know what the judges are looking for
  • You are walking into an unfamiliar room with a new acoustic
  • You don’t know what time of day you’ll be performing.

What this means is that when you walk into the competition round, or the audition room, you have no idea what you’ll face. You can make guesses about what the panel will be looking for, but you’ll never really know. So it’s a cognitive distortion to pin your sense of self-worth on the outcome, or your belief in your future employability or career success. Ultimately, the outcome isn’t really in your control! The panel are in charge of who gets through to the second round, not you. So if they don’t include you, you have to remember that there were many variables that were outside of your control.

But there are things that you CAN control

Writing in 1923, FM Alexander approached the topic of nerves and performance, and stated something that I don’t think people take seriously enough:

…we must remember that it is only the small minority of experts in any line who really know how they get their results and effects… Therefore directly anything puts them “off their game,” they experience considerable difficulty, at any rate, in getting on to it again.[2]

In other words, because most performers (and FM was using golfers as his example) don’t really know how they are doing what they are doing, they are more likely to be put off by the weird acoustic in the hall, or by the other candidate ostentatiously doing stretches in the warm-up room.

Ideally, we don’t want to be put “off our game.” We can take steps to make this less likely:

  • Rehearse in different spaces and acoustics
  • Play at different times of day
  • Create mock performances for friends, family and any other crowd you can gather together.

Don’t be put “off your game”

But if we’re doing auditions or a competition, we also want to make sure that, if we are put “off our game,” that we can get back to it again. And FM Alexander tells us how:

It is only by having a clear conception of what is required for the successful performance of a certain stroke or other act, combined with a knowledge of the psycho-physical means whereby those requirements can be met, that there is any reasonable possibility of their attaining sureness and confidence during performance.[3]

Alexander’s recipe for success is to control your own performance. You can make sure that you are as well-prepared as it is possible to be under your particular given circumstances. That means:

  • Setting goals; knowing what is required for a successful performance
  • Working out a means of meeting those goals
  • Doing the practise necessary to make sure that you can carry out those means effectively. If that means spending many hours practising one trill, then that’s what you have to do!

The advantage of doing this work is that, once you’ve done the auditions or competition, you have criteria for assessing your own performance. Did you achieve the goals you set? Did you carry out the process you designed? If you’re lucky my colleague and I were, you’ll be given a video of your performance so that you can watch it back and learn what you can do better next time.

By doing the prep work, you can control your reaction to the process. Yes, it’s stressful – I’m not denying that. But you’ll have taken the steps to reduce the stress as much as you can, and you’ll have given yourself the best chance to shine. And in the end, that’s the most important thing.

 

[1] Full disclosure: I know that my students have a tougher time than me, because I’m not hoping for a professional full-time musical career. My students have more invested in the experience than I did. But I still wanted to do well!

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.340-341.

[3] ibid., p.341.

Do you have an evaluation addiction?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I have a number of students with an evaluation addiction. It crops up strongly amongst the musicians, but it’s by no means limited to their number. Writers have it; artists and businesspeople have it. Sportspeople suffer from it too. And a full disclaimer: this is a problem I continue to work on as a musician.

What do I mean by an evaluation addiction? It’s when a performer, for example, evaluates what they are doing while they are doing it, to the detriment of their own performance. Author Melody Beattie describes it very neatly:

After I finished the first two chapters of a book I was writing, I read them and grimaced. “No good,” I thought… I was ready to pitch the chapters, and my writing career, out the window. A writer friend called, and I told her about my problem. She listened and told me… “Stop criticizing yourself. And keep on writing.”
I followed her advice. The book I almost threw away became a New York Times best-seller.[1]

Once upon a time, one of my students, a violinist with perfect pitch, was so intent on criticising her intonation that she had reached the point where she could barely string a phrase together. She was so busy evaluating her playing (and finding it wanting) that she was actually unable to play.

As I see it, there are two major issues at play here. Let’s look at them in turn.

Evaluation addiction assumes the worst

My violin student had a major problem with negative thinking. I think partly as a result of her perfect pitch, she spent all her time not just listening to the intonation of her playing and berating herself for getting it wrong, but assuming that it would be wrong. Before even picking up the instrument, she had decided on some level that things were going to sound out of tune. And because humans are very adept at carrying out what they have decided, that’s exactly what would happen – she would play slightly out of tune.

We need to address this tendency to project a ‘worst case scenario’ onto what we are about to do. FM Alexander realised that mental attitude was important:

When… we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed. The act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance. [2]

If we want to improve our performance, we need to begin by addressing this addiction to assuming the worst.

Evaluation addiction takes up brain space.

The other major issue with evaluation addiction is that it consumes your concentration. The neuroscience of it is that we only have a limited number of ‘slots’ in our working memory – we used to think seven, but the modern estimate is only four.[3] If you choose to occupy one of these four precious slots for evaluating what you’re doing, then what vital part of performing are you going to jettison? Are you going to stop thinking ahead and planning the next phrases in the music? Or maybe quit listening to your ensemble partners? If you’re playing sport, are you going to stop scanning the field for gaps, or stop keeping an eye on the position of your teammates?

Of course, the big irony with giving up so much of our precious attention to evaluation is that it is practically useless. Think about it: when you evaluate something like the pitch of a note, you are evaluating something that you have already done. If you’ve already done it, you can’t change it. It’s out there in the world. Berating yourself about how bad it is might be tempting, but it just isn’t helpful. Believe me – I know this. I’m renowned for the faces I pull if I mess something up in a concert. And when I pull faces, I usually mess up the phrase I’m just about to play as well, because my mind is in the past rather than the future.

If we give up the temptation to evaluate what is already gone and put our valuable attention on what we are about to do, then things are likely to go so much better for us. FM Alexander has these words of comfort for us:

…where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[4]

Our job, then, is to direct our thoughts to planning what we want to achieve. If we have a clear idea of what we want to have happen, then we have a far better chance of directing ourselves in movement to be able to carry out our designs.

It’s something I’m definitely working on: leaving the evaluation addiction behind, and placing my attention on something that will actually help. Anyone else with me?

 

[1] Beattie, M., The Language of Letting Go, Hazelden, 1990, p.11.

{2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.52.

[3] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, (eBook ed) Penguin, 2014, p.41.

[4] Alexander, FM, The Universal Constant in Living, IRDEAT, p.587.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos

Feeling stuck on a problem? Try making an experiment.

make an experimentIf you’re stuck – if you’ve got a problem and you can’t see an easy way out – can you design an experiment? For example, if you’re not sure about whether you are struggling over that semiquaver passage because of fingerings or because of uncertainty about the notes, how could you decide?

The Alexander Technique IS making an experiment

When I ask them, people tell me all sorts of ideas about what the Alexander Technique is about. Some think the AT is all about nice feelings, or all about theory. Or standing up straight (it’s not!). Some people think it’s about having things done to you, like some kind of therapy. But it’s actually based on experimentation. In the opening chapter to his 1932 book The Use of the Self, Alexander described his technique as

“practical experimentation upon the living human being.” [1]

In other words, making hypotheses and finding ways to test them is not just practical – it’s a fundamental part of how Alexander Technique can help you.

I have a student who had had an injury to one of her hips, and knew that she was probably using it gingerly. But how could she tell exactly how differently she used her (once) injured right leg compared to her left? By coincidence, she was given not one but two pedometers by kind friends. And she created an experiment. She put one pedometer on her left leg, and one on her once-injured right. At the end of the day the left pedometer registered around 900 steps, but the right one only registered 400ish.

Proof? Not yet – the pedometer might be faulty. So the next day she followed the same routine, but swapped the pedometers to the opposite legs. The result? The left one registered 900 steps again, and the right one only 400ish. My student had proof that she was doing something very different with her once-injured right leg. Once she had that proof, she could begin to think of ways to change things.

Making an experiment – FM’s approach

So how do we do it? I suggest we try following FM’s example. When he was trying to work out how to solve the vocal problems that threatened his career, FM said that he , FM followed these steps:

He collected his facts. He knew that reciting brought on hoarseness. He knew that normal speaking did not cause the same problems. By observing the patterns, he could see clear differences between the two different forms of speaking.

He made a hypothesis. Based on his observations, FM concluded that he must be doing something different with his vocal mechanisms while reciting that was harmful, compared to what he was doing when speaking normally. It fitted the observations, but it was still just a hypothesis – he needed to find a way to prove if what he suspected was true.

He designed a test. He watched himself speaking in front of a mirror, first just speaking normally, and then reciting. He repeated these steps, to make sure that his observations were accurate. And from these, he was able to prove, interestingly, that his hypothesis was actually false![2] From there, he could design new experiments based on his new knowledge.

And that’s the point. If FM had tried to fix things without forming a hypothesis or making an experiment, he would have been using trial and error – it would have been sheer luck if he’d solved his problems. Luck is fine, but it doesn’t help you the next time a similar problem shows up. When you make an experiment, you are following clearly defined steps, which means that you’ll be able to follow your reasoning again at a later date. You won’t constantly be reinventing the wheel; or worse, just guessing.

Making an experiment: the steps

So if you want to know what is causing your problem and make steps to solve it, follow this simple procedure:

  1. Collect your facts
  2. Make a hypothesis
  3. Design a way to test your hypothesis
  4. Have fun.

Don’t forget step 4 – that’s what it’s all about, really!

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.22.

[2] ibid., pp.25-6.

What running a half marathon taught me about doing the work.

Me reaping the rewards of doing the work

Last Sunday I ran my first ever half marathon. I’m going to write about it, not because I’m proud of myself (although I am), and not because I want praise. I learned something about the nature of goals and work, and about how we mess ourselves up by misrepresenting them. I’m writing about my experience because I think it simultaneously destroys a couple of myths and demonstrates a really important principle.

Myth 1: “you must be really amazing.”

No, I’m not. Five or six years ago I would have had trouble running for a bus. I’ve been overweight and unfit, and I’m definitely not naturally sporty. I just decided to change, and then did the work to make it happen.

Similarly, FM Alexander wasn’t special. He was just some guy from small-town Tasmania. But he wanted to sort out his vocal problems, so he decided to do the work to make that happen.

Myth 2: “a goal like that is so big, I could never do it.”

This myth is tricky, because it is wrong on two levels. First of all, what looks like the goal (the half marathon) isn’t the true motivating factor. I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to do a half marathon, any more than FM Alexander just decided to found a whole new field of psycho-physical education. He wanted to act again without losing his voice; I wanted to gain a level of fitness to ensure I’ll stay healthy as I get older. For FM, creating what we now call the Alexander Technique was something that happened because he became fascinated with the process of what he was doing to solve his vocal problems. For me, entering a half marathon happened because I got fascinated by distance running, and because having a race in the calendar helps me to stay disciplined with my training. In both cases, the big goal isn’t actually the true motivating factor. FM and I had intrinsic motivations that were way more important.

The second way this myth bites is that it assumes that the Half Marathon (or whatever the apparent goal is) is too big and scary to achieve. Someone new to running will look at the 13.1 miles, and see an overwhelmingly long course. Which it is.

But it isn’t impossible. It’s just a big goal, which needs to be broken down into more achievable chunks. You take advice. You work consistently. And by working the smaller steps, the larger goal takes care of itself. This is what FM was getting at when he said:

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[1]

Principle: You can do the work.

What I’ve learned, and what I hope I’m modelling here, is that anyone can do the work.

It’s worth repeating: ANYONE CAN DO THE WORK.

Human beings are amazing. We can achieve amazing things, all of us. But certain conditions need to be met before we can unleash our amazingness upon the world.

  • Have a WHY. Motivation is really important, and intrinsic motivation is the best kind. I wanted to improve my fitness so I can maintain my health as I get older. FM wanted to keep acting – a profession he loved.
  • Have a goal. I chose a half marathon (and previously, some 10k races). FM wanted to recite and maintain his vocal condition.
  • Use the tools to hand. FM used a mirror or three. I found a fantastic website that tailor-made a training programme for me. I talked to friends, and gathered advice. Look at what is around that can help you.
  • Get help and external accountability. I made sure that friends knew what I was up to, so that they would ask me how the training was going. FM checked his physical condition with friends and doctors.[2]
  • Keep going. It takes a certain level of persistence and mental discipline to keep going when things get difficult. One of my favourite sentences in the whole of Evolution of a Technique is when FM says, “Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”[3] Even when FM’s investigations were going apparently very badly, he kept working. This is where your intrinsic motivation becomes really important. I had plenty of rubbish training runs, but I still kept going.
  • Be prepared to laugh at yourself. My teacher’s teacher, Marjorie Barstow, advocated it, and I think it’s an important point. Take the process seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

Running a long race isn’t for everyone. But I think we all have ideas and goals and dreams, and often we cheat ourselves out of them. What would happen if you chose to honour them instead, and do the work?

[1] FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat ed., p.587.

[2] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.28.

[3] ibid., p.36.

Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

Music students who use the same practice room at the same time every day.

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

People who park in the same parking space every single day.

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path.” [1]

Grooves can be good. They help us to get through every day of our lives – they speed up decision making and get us through our days faster. But…The problem with the groove is that, while you’re in it, you’re not thinking hugely effectively. You may be following an established protocol very easily, but you won’t necessarily have analysed whether that protocol is really best for your needs. Sometimes your protocol will be sound, but at other times it will be staggeringly inappropriate, and you’ll be too busy in your groove to notice.

For example, it may look like a time saving measure for a physical therapist or chiropractor to stick to one side of the table for making adjustments on patients. They don’t have to move as much, and they get really good at adjustments on that side. But it comes at a price: they risk being less comfortable if they have to work in a different space where they are forced to use their ‘wrong’ side. And they risk muscle fatigue and injury to the side that is working harder.

Similarly, the music students I work with tend to love the routine of just block-booking a practice room as far into the future as the computer system will allow. They book the same room, and the same time. It gives a rhythm to their day-to-day life, and makes practice as normal a part of the day as eating or sleeping. But this also comes at a cost. When these students come to do recitals, they have to perform in very different rooms at different times of day. At a time when they already have the pressure of grading, they also leave themselves open to the disorientation of new spaces and different circadian rhythms, a new acoustic, and a lack of the environmental cues that helped them to memorise their pieces. The added load from all these new stimuli can be enough to hinder them from performing as well as they could.

Nonplussed by the unexpected

FM Alexander knew this only too well. In his first book he recounts a story of a young man who had been given an introduction to one of FM’s students, a prominent businessman. The young man hoped for a job, but was stunned when the businessman shouted at him, “What the devil do you know about business?”

“Of course,” the young man continued, “I was so unnerved that I could not even collect my thoughts and I was so flurried that I could not answer his further questions. He told me he hadn’t any position to suit me.” “My dear young man,” I remarked, “why did you allow Mr. —– to insult you? Why did you not remonstrate with him …” “I was so upset by his sudden attack, and I didn’t expect to be treated in such a way.” “Just so,” I replied, “you were nonplussed by the unexpected. But I hope this will be a lesson to you. Mr. —– was only testing you, and he wants men who are capable of dealing with unexpected events and situations in his business.”[2]

We need to be ready for the unexpected. We need to be able to deal with stimuli that could cause fear, and the way to do this is through  knowingly and deliberately breaking your grooves, in order that you can improve your physical and mental flexibility and your tolerance of stress.

Physical and Mental flexibility

I know it seems fairly obvious, but unthinkingly carrying out the same physical protocols day in, day out, is not likely to be hugely beneficial for your physical health. You run the risk of never actually taking even a moment to STOP, and allow your body to properly rest.

But this is true mentally, too. Trapping yourself in an unthinking groove won’t help you mentally either. To take the musical example, if you mix up the practice room you use and the time of day you practise, you are giving yourself low-stakes opportunities to experience different acoustics and different experiences of playing. This gives you the mental flexibility to be able to deal with changes of space, time and audience when you perform. This means that you’ll be far less likely to be phased by a grumpy examiner, or that audience member rustling a cough sweet wrapper for an eternity!

Small amounts of stress are good

Deliberately changing your routines will also leave you less open to amygdala hijack. This is where your reasoning centres become unable to inhibit the fear reaction from the primitive parts of your brain, making it difficult to think or remember anything.[3] By choosing to mix things up, you are helping your brain to develop the reasoning power and mental discipline to control your amygdala more effectively. There is an increasing body of evidence that choosing to undergo small amounts of stress helps to prime your brain for improved performance by causing the production of new nerve cells that help you to be more alert. [4]

So try changing your routines. Find ways of subtly placing yourself under a modest (and short-lived) amount of stress.

  • If you are doing an audition, for example, choose to play in lots of different spaces with different acoustics, and choose to play in front of people.
  • If you’re doing a half marathon (like I will be soon), choose to run at different times of day, or after doing some heavy mental work, in order to stretch your mental discipline.
  • If you are involved in an occupation where it is tempting to do things one way all the time, see if you can find a way to change your movement patterns.

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

[1] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.67.

[2] ibid., pp.140-141.

[3] Katwala,A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.123.

[4] http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/04/16/researchers-find-out-why-some-stress-is-good-for-you/

Big questions: can I learn Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Jennifer Mackerras teaching

Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson is likely to have experienced the teacher using their hands during the lesson process. Hands-on guidance is one of the tools used by Alexander Technique teachers to help their students change and improve. But there are always debates about whether it is possible to teach without the use of hands – on Skype, for example. For some, the entire concept of Alexander Technique without hands-on is anathema. For others, it is a poor second-best option. For others, it is the necessary way to learn. But who is right, and can you learn as effectively? Let’s think about it…

Alexander Technique and hands

It’s a fairly normal and traditional aspect of Alexander Technique lessons that the teacher will use their hands to give some form of gentle guidance to a student. In a previous post, I described Alexander hands-on as being a means of making it increasingly impossible for a student to carry on with the unhelpful movement behaviours they indulge in; they become aware of what they are doing, and can choose to stop. In this description of Alexander hands-on, we can think of what the teacher is doing as being a kind of psycho-physical disruptor. I help the student disrupt their old way of thinking, and aid them in finding a better way of going about things.

Practical obstacles

In-person lessons with hands-on are great. But they aren’t possible for everyone. Some students live too far away from a teacher to have in-person lessons. And I have encountered many students who simply don’t like being touched; some in certain areas, and some not at all! Some people, for example those on the continuum of autism-related disorders, have significant sensory issues, and being touched is either very stressful or actually painful. Are we really going to tell these people that they aren’t allowed to have lessons unless they submit to something that they may find intensely uncomfortable?

When faced with the choice of no exposure to Alexander Technique at all, versus Alexander Technique without hands-on, the latter starts looking like a great option.

Use of hands in the Alexander Technique

The use of hands-on techniques has had a privileged place in Alexander Technique training and philosophy for a long time now. Some people even go so far as to say that use of hands with a student is essential, or it isn’t an AT lesson. According to this view, the student hasn’t actually learned anything unless hands have been used.[1]

But… We have cases of teachers and students who have learned without the benefit of anyone placing hands upon them. FM Alexander himself would be the classic first example! I think he turned out pretty well, and from his own description he didn’t use hands-on techniques on himself (he did spend a lot of time in front of mirrors).[2] Similarly, FM’s brother AR Alexander was a fine and well-respected teacher. AR famously only had 6 lessons, and none of those involved use of hands.[3]

Ultimately, whether or not you think the use of hands is essential in a lesson comes down to what you think the main job of the Alexander Technique is. If you think that its primary task is to bring an improved sensory awareness to the student, then the use of hands would be near indispensable. And there are a significant number of teachers around who believe that sensory awareness is vital, and that hands are therefore essential.

But this isn’t the main job of the Alexander Technique as FM described it. He said that the “centre and backbone” of his theory and practice was “that the conscious mind must be quickened” (in the sense of being made more alive).[4] Teacher Frank Pierce Jones described it as bringing a practical intelligence into the things that you are doing.[5] If the main task of an Alexander Technique teacher is to improve a student’s psycho-physical wellbeing by improving their ability to reason and direct themselves in activity, then anything that furthers that goal would be a useful technique to use. Hands would be useful, but not essential. Imitation and demonstration would be good, but not essential. Talking and questioning would be good, but still not essential – probably…

So, Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Here’s my point of view, and it’s the basis on which I teach:

Are hands-on techniques good? Yes.

Can you learn without them? Yes.

As long as I do whatever I can to challenge your erroneous ideas, using whatever tools I have available, and as long as you are willing to do the work, you can learn the Alexander Technique.

[1] MacDonald, P., The Alexander Technique As I See It, Rahula, Brighton, 1989, pp.8-9. I don’t think I’m doing a disservice to MacDonald by citing him here. I certainly think that MacDonald’s statement here (and elsewhere) suggests that he did believe hands were essential.

[2] See the first chapter of The Use of the Self for all the mirror references. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, pp.26-7.

[3] Jones, F.P., Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., London, Mouritz, 1997, p.18.

Edward Maisel says in his introduction to his compilation of Alexander’s writings called The Resurrection of the Body that FM and AR were teaching with purely verbal instruction when they set up their teaching practice in London in 1904; hands-on techniques were clearly developed after AR had his 6 lessons. Maisel, E., The Resurrection of the Body, Shambhala, Boston, 1986, p. xxvii.

[4]  Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat complete ed., p.39.

[5] Jones, op.cit., p.2.

Why playing challenging material is important

Jennifer Mackerras (teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol) playing recorder

“I just want to play freely – I don’t want to feel uncomfortable”

Often as musicians, we find ourselves playing challenging material – something that is just a little beyond where we feel comfortable. That’s certainly true as we are learning an instrument. I think it’s also true in other areas: I’ve found while training for my next 10km race, often the running that my training programme requires involves me feeling a bit pushed.

And we can have ambivalent reactions to that feeling of discomfort when playing challenging material. Working with amateur musicians, particularly, I often hear the desire to feel comfortable while playing. People want to play easily – they want it to be flowing. They want to be able to ‘switch off’ a little bit and enjoy themselves. They certainly don’t want to feel ‘on the edge’!

Certainly, we don’t want to be ‘on the edge’ all the time. I think it’s important that we rest, and that we take the time to revisit material so that we CAN take a step back and enjoy our music-making (or training…).

On the other hand, I’ve read some material recently that gives good solid evidence for why playing challenging material – at least some of the time – is important for our growth and creativity.

Playing challenging material helps us gain mastery

When we work on playing challenging material, we are effectively improving our ‘neural networks’. Particularly with complex physical skills like driving a car, playing sports, dancing, or playing a musical instrument, there are too many lines of thought happening at once for them all to be controllable in working memory. When we practise we link parts of the skill together into ‘chunks’ that enable us to streamline how many things we actually need to process. [1]

Mastery in pretty much any field could be defined (in part) by how effectively the performer in question has created ‘chunks’ that help them carry out their skill. Psychologist Adriaan de Groot found this when he studied the ability of novice and master chess players to recreate a chess board from memory. The masters could do it easily, but only if the boards resembled patterns from a real game. If the pieces were random, they did no better than the novices. The chess masters didn’t have better memories – they simply had more experience of more boards. They could divide what they saw into chunks for easy use. [2]

If we work on creating chunks of information by consistently working on challenging ourselves with new and trickier material, we can improve our performance, too.

Playing challenging material helps us expand our limits

The improvement of mastery from creating chunks alone can help us expand our limits so that we can do/play more challenging material. But we may be expanding our limits in another way, too. In her book Cure, author Jo Marchant describes the ‘central governor’ theory of physical exertion: the concept that we all have a ‘limiter’ in our brains that prevents us from exerting ourselves beyond safe levels. Many believe that particular kinds of physical training – like short-burst high intensity interval training – help to retrain the central governor so that we can exert ourselves a little further.[3] But what if this is true on a psychological level, too?

Psychologist Wendy Mendes studies the effect of changes of attitude to stressful situations on our sympathetic nervous systems. Mendes has found that, put very simply, how we mentally approach a challenging situation determines how stressed we get. If we look on a challenging situation as scary, we will have a larger and longer-lasting adrenaline response than if we look on the same situation as exciting.[4]

As FM Alexander found when investigating his own vocal problems, we can often have inaccurate concepts of what it is that we are doing. We can think we are doing an activity in a certain way, but actually be doing it very differently to how we imagine! [5] This is equally true of activities or material we find challenging. What if the challenge isn’t actually in the activity itself, but exists purely in the way that we perceive it?

If, therefore, we accustom ourselves to testing our limits by playing challenging material, we are improving our ability to mentally approach challenge. We will be better able to cope under pressure.

Accept the challenge, but accept it wisely

A bit of a challenge, then, is a good thing. It helps us achieve mastery, and enables us to expand our concept of where our limits might lie. It gives us experience that will enable us to cope better under pressure. Just remember to be mindful that the challenge you accept is also realistic. A newbie mountain climber should probably not choose Everest for their first major challenge. Even a relatively skilled pianist might be biting off more than they can chew if they choose some works by Liszt (or virtually anything by Alkan!).

So make sure the challenge pushes you a bit, and then work at it. The results might astonish you.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Penguin, Kindle ed., p.55.

[2] Katwala, A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.33f.

[3] Marchant, J., Cure, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2016, p.80.

[4] ibid., p.171.

[5] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Which comes first when learning new stuff: the repetition or the meaning?

repetition or interpretation

In the work I’ve done with performers (of all types), there seem to be two main approaches to the task of learning new material.

The first is Repetition camp. The performer learns the new role or piece of music through consistent and constant repetition. As they repeat it, they learn the structure and develop an interpretation organically through the rehearsal process. Some performers actually say they can’t really work on interpretation until they have all the words/notes by memory!

The second approach I’ll describe as the Analysis camp. In this approach, the performer does an in depth analysis of the role or piece of music. They develop an interpretation through the process of analysis, and only then do the words or notes stick in the mind. It is the meaning behind the notes or words that causes them to be memorable.

So which is the better approach? Which form of learning gives better results? Well, it probably won’t surprise you that my answer isn’t a straight yes to one or other approach. Unless you’re planning to perform from memory, that is…

Memorising is your goal? Then no mindless repetition!

If your goal is to be able to perform the piece reliably from memory, then just pure repetition is not going to give you a result that will be robust under stress. Associative chaining (that’s the technical term) is great, but if you miss a note or a phrase in stressful circumstances like an audition, the likelihood is that it will be hard to recover. The evidence is that giving yourself cues (technical, dynamic, phrasing, interpretive) gives. You a better chance of performing under pressure.[1]

Why choose? The flexibility issue.

The primary problem with wanting to choose just one of these approaches, and the main focus of my article today, is that it just isn’t very flexible. Here are the three ways you might be missing out by limiting yourself to one single approach to learning new material:

It isn’t mindful.

There’s good evidence that learning and then unquestioningly following a set of instructions will serve you more poorly than interrogating the principles behind the instructions as you learn them so that you can adapt them to other situations. This is particularly true for mechanical skills, but I think it holds true for processes like learning repertoire, too. We need to be able to adapt our approach to the particular material in front of us – that way we make the best of the material according to our unique skills and needs. [2]

FM Alexander would describe this as “keeping in communication with our reason.” He wanted to encourage adaptability:

A proper standard of mental and physical perfection implies an adaptability which makes it easy for a man to turn from one occupation in which a certain set of muscles are employed, to another involving totally different muscular actions.[3]

It isn’t joined-up

When you have two different approaches to something, why keep them separate? I am reminded of AT teacher Frank Pierce Jones speaking about fields of attention. He had had the experience of EITHER noticing what was going on within himself, OR thinking about the external environment. Then he had a breakthrough.

It was only after I realized attention can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress… It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields – one for the self (introspection) and another for the environment (extrqspection) -= to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.[4]

It suffers from tunnel vision.

In her fantastic book A Mind for Numbers, Prof Barbara Oakley describes a phenomenon called Einstellung. Literally meaning ‘installation’, she describes it as when we ‘install’ a roadblock in our thinking. When faced with a problem or a task, we might be tempted to focus all our effort on just approach to a solution. But it might not be the right one! If we stay committed to the approach we prefer, we are likely to miss other more valuable approaches. [5]

Let’s try for flexibility instead.

Flexibility means:

  • Having a number of different tools and approaches in your toolkit;
  • Being prepared to use different tools according to the material and your goal;
  • Being prepared to change tools if the one you’re using isn’t working, or if the director/conductor tells you to.

I’ve talked before about open-mindedness being one of FM’s highest positive values. Interestingly, one of his definitions of it involves being able to change jobs if necessary; we see a flavour of that in the quote from Man’s Supreme Inheritance earlier in this article. What he is getting at, I think, is having the ability to recognise when things aren’t working, when the circumstances or processes that you are following are not working to help you achieve your goals, and then to change them.

[1] https://bulletproofmusician.com/regular-memorization-works-ok-but-heres-why-deliberate-memorization-is-way-better/

[2] https://bulletproofmusician.com/mindful-learning-day-wife-nearly-failed-driving-test/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.136.

[4] Jones, FP. Freedom to Change, London, Mouritz, p.9.

[4] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., pp.19-20.

Image by njaj from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Practice Flowchart that shows how to ‘think Alexander’ in music practice

I work a lot with musicians of all ability levels, and often face questions about how to practice effectively. I was thrilled last week when I chatted with a friend on Twitter, piano teacher Lynne Phillips, and she shared with me her Practice Flowchart. It is precisely what I’ve been trying to explain to my students! I was so impressed that I thought I would share it with you. It is far too useful a tool to be confined to piano students, or even to musicians. I think we might all learn something from the clarity of thinking and observation that Lynne Phillips describes here.

Practice Flowchart

Why love the Practice Flowchart?

What I love particularly about Lynne’s practice flowchart is that it is a clear example of a couple of key ideas from FM Alexander’s books used ‘in the wild’. It’s a clear practical application of FM’s process for protocol design, a tool he described in his third book, The Use of the Self. It’s also a good working example of the principle of ‘not allowing your enthusiasm to dominate your reason’. I’ll deal with each in turn.

A process for designing a plan

When FM Alexander was trying to find a way of solving his vocal hoarseness, he realised that he would need to create a new, reasoned plan for how to speak. If he did this, he could then use it to replace the instinctive plan that was causing his hoarseness. So he created the following steps:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect. [1]

We can see very clearly that the Practice Flowchart follows these steps.

Analysis of conditions present:

Sometimes a teacher will have given you something to work upon. But if not, in her blog post accompanying the flowchart, Lynne recommends playing through the music with a critical ear, looking for places that need attention.

Selecting (reasoning out) the means:

Once you have found a passage (which might be as small as a bar or two), the flowchart asks you to consider what you are trying to achieve. Having set this goal, you are then in a position to decide how best to achieve that goal.

Projecting consciously the directions to put the means into effect:

This is the part where people often feel a little hazy. I think it can be difficult to get a grasp on what FM means at this point. For the purposes of today, I am going to remark on the word ‘consciously’. You are deliberately working on just the section you chose, in the way that you chose. You are using your reasoning processes to carry out your plan. And you are staying aware of what you are doing, because at each repetition you are asking yourself how confident you are about how you underwent your process. Lynne Phillips explains:

I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. [2]

Note the acute observation required here: the tiniest hesitation or deviating muscle movement is to Lynne an indicator of further work being required.

Curb your enthusiasm

The other major Alexander Technique principle we see here in practical use is that of not allowing one’s enthusiasm to overcome one’s reason. It’s mentioned by Alexander in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. FM himself describes unchecked enthusiasm as the greatest danger against which he had to fight when working on his vocal problems.[3]

When we find a problem, it can be tempting to keep worrying away at it in the same way as a dog with a chewy toy. But no one works well when tired, and the kind of focussed attention we need to use in this kind of practice does wear thin. In the flowchart itself, Lynne gives an arbitrary figure of 10 repetitions. But in her accompanying blog post, Lynne Phillips fleshes out how to know when to stop:

Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance.

The Practice Flowchart contains in its structure a healthy dose of realism. If we run out of concentration, or if things aren’t improving, we walk away, and try again another day.

In conclusion…

This practice flowchart was made by a piano teacher for piano students, but I believe has a far wider relevance. I can imagine this working for sportspeople very effectively. I could even see this working as a working method for science students or language students wanting to improve their skills. ‘Thinking in activity’ is one of the better-known descriptions of FM Alexander’s work. Lynne’s practice flowchart is a clear example of thinking in activity, in my opinion, and I hope that seeing a practical example of how clear reasoning based upon detailed observation would be inspirational to us all.

 

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] https://properpianofingers.com/2013/12/18/the-practice-flowchart/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90.

The Practice Flowchart was created by Lynne Phillips ©2013, and is found at: https://properpianofingers.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/practice-flowchart.pdf